Sunday, May 27, 2007

Is Cameron trying to escape Grammargate with the dog whistle?

…Some further thoughts on the David Willetts idea to set “racial” targets for schools. It is reported as part of the Observer lead story, albeit in a more diluted form than the rather more starkly expressed original BBC report I linked to earlier today.

Interestingly, in the Observer it refers to setting targets for city academies to take students from “both communities” where there are significant community “blocs” locally. That’s a rather different idea than the one expressed in the BBC report.

The Observer points out that the phenomenon of virtually “segregated” schools is clear in cities such as Blackburn and Bradford. “Ted Cantle, who wrote the landmark ‘parallel lives’ report following the 2001 riots in Burnley, Oldham and Bradford, told The Observer: “There is some evidence that once a school starts to divide it does reach a tipping point where one side or the other feels this school is no longer for them.”

Crucially, the Observer notes that the problem of organically “segregated schools” is not an issue in London and in, to a lesser extent, Birmingham. It is worth taking a deep breath, pausing and taking that in. This problem, for which Professor Two Brains has shut himself away in his laboratory and come up with one of his suspectedly madcap schemes, is not a problem in London. London. Yes, London. …One of the biggest, if not the biggest racial melting pots in the world. And to a lesser extent, Birmingham. …Another huge city with a history of mixed race populations.

So, if this is not a problem in London and Birmingham, it hardly seems to call for the huge national policy of “racial quotas” for schools, which the Conservatives are suggesting, certainly in the original BBC report. If the phenomenon is a problem in a relatively few cities such as Bradford and Blackburn, it does seem that a less far-reaching and dramatic policy is required. …Like for example, the policy which Alan Johnson says the government is pursuing, of getting schools to take action to promote social cohesion through activities such as school twinning and teacher sharing

I was educated in a school which had a modest but reasonably broad racial mix. We had pupils from all the continents, representing a very mixed bag of countries. One of my best friends was from Ghana and in our form we had students from Iran, Kenya, South Africa, Guyana, Cyprus, Turkey, Zimbabwe, India, Malaysia etc etc. I only mention this because I have always felt grateful that I rubbed shoulders with those of other backgrounds at an early age. I think it is an invaluable experience for children.

In my original posting on this earlier I did suggest that we don’t seem to worry about the thousands of schools in the country which are dominated by “white Caucasian” pupils. Upon reflection, my mind did alight, albeit rather belatedly (it was Saunday morning, after all), upon the example of Northern Ireland. I am a great supporter of the Independent schools there which seek to promote mixed community pupil intakes. However, this is done by having mixed community local school governors/teachers and an “organic” school-driven policy of mixed community intakes. That is very different from the top-down central government driven “racial quotas” system which the Conservative party seems to be proposing. It is very hard to see how this Willetts scheme would work without some degree of school intake control or compunction resulting in disappointed parents/children.

One further point. It is hard not conclude that this Willetts “racial quotas” scheme has been concocted to try to bring an end to “Grammargate”. In that regard it is perhaps skilfull. ‘Chuck a bit of red meat to the right wingers to shut them up about Grammar schools’ – that sort of thing. The Willetts idea has an element of the dog whistle to it. There is nothing right wingers like more than to moan about racial minorities “flocking together” – ‘if they come over here they should respect our ways and mix in – not hide away in ghettos’….that sort of thing. It is the accompanying grumble for the downing of many a pink gin in the privacy of some golf club bars.

Incidentally, David Cameron declares in the Mail today that the Grammar school debate is over. It's not up to him really. However, Conservative Home have stopped heading up each day as "Day xx of Grammarsgate" as of today.

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